Reprinted from The NY Times - April 2nd, 2012
Was that all there was? The art world was braced for another attack from Morley Safer and his “60 Minutes” crew on Sunday night. It had been nearly two decades since the 1993 segment in which he derisively lumped together the work of Jeff Koons, Cy Twombly, Robert Ryman, Robert Gober, Christopher Wool, Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Jean-Michel Basquiat while inviting conservative art critics like Hilton Kramer, who died last week, to confirm that it was all indeed overpriced tripe — “the emperor’s new clothes,” as he put it.
The first time around Mr. Safer did little except talk about money. There being much more money in the art world these days, a reprise must have been irresistible.
But Mr. Safer’s return visit was a relatively toothless, if still quite clueless, exercise. Basically he and his camera crew spent a few hours last December swanning around Art Basel Miami Beach, the hip art fair, and venturing nowhere else, letting the spectacle of this event, passed through quickly and superficially, stand for the whole art world. With money again the driving force and main focus, their look-see had a Johnny-come-lately tone.
In voice-over Mr. Safer discharged an opening salvo or two, calling the art fair “an upscale flea market.” And he also took a parting shot at “the art trade” as a “booming cutthroat commodities market.” But in between he was relatively benign, almost avuncular, schmoozing blue-chip art dealers, brushing shoulders with collectors and the occasional museum director or trustee. Yes, he smirked and laughed up his sleeve a lot. But so what? He can’t really tell good from bad and doesn’t care to put in the time that might make him able to. And times have changed. These days the art world blogosphere produces so much of its own smug, semi-informed, provincial snark that it is hard for Mr. Safer’s to stand out.
Moving down the aisles he uttered some dismissive phrases like “the cute, the kitsch and the clumsy” while the camera passed often inconsequential work that was left unidentified. Mention was made of performance and video art. Occasionally he mustered feeble attempts to be receptive. There was a respectful pause in the aspersions as the camera passed a canvas by Helen Frankenthaler, although her name was not mentioned. Kara Walker was referred to as a “truly talented artist.” At the Metro Pictures booth it was hard to know whether he liked the work of Cindy Sherman, but he noted that her photographs sold for $4 million (glossing over the fact that only one did).
It didn’t help that the emperor’s new clothes cliché was trotted out again, along with “artspeak” to refer to the way that discussions of art can sound to the uninitiated, or the incurious. His act felt tired and formulaic. He couldn’t muster much outrage, maybe because, for the time being at least, the art world is a bit too real as a business. If you’re fixated on money, it tends to impress.
“The art market sizzles,” he observed, “while the stock market fizzles.” Maybe a few too many of the artists whose work he ridiculed back then are still around.
He looked mildly sheepish as Jeffrey Deitch, who appeared in the first segment, pointed out that a work by Jeff Koons that “sold well” for $250,000 in 1993 now sells for $25 million. He deferred to the art dealer Larry Gagosian and the collector Eli Broad, who each said as little as possible on camera.
Tim Blum, an art dealer from Los Angeles, was the most expansive interviewee, describing three categories of collectors: those who buy art for love (because it is “their lifeline”), those who buy on speculation and the superrich for whom art is “the next thing on their queue,” their list of must-have status symbols.
Mr. Safer clearly has no time for love, and no one bothers to explain that even speculators and the superrich don’t stay interested too long unless they have some knowledge of and attraction to art, however you may disagree with their aesthetic choices or be put off by the outrageous prices they are willing to pay.
Have they ruined art? No, they’ve just created their own little art world that has less and less to do with a more real, less moneyed one where young dealers scrape by to show artists they believe in, most of whom are also scraping by. Mr. Safer should visit that one sometime, without the cameras, and try to see for himself, beyond the dollar signs. Either that or he should just come clean: He could not care less about the new or how it makes its way, or doesn’t, into the world and into history. That’s fine.
The obsessions of others are opaque to the unobsessed, and thus easy to mock. Nascar, jazz, baseball, roses, poetry, quilts, fishing. If we’re lucky, we all have at least one.